Thursday, February 04, 2010

Grad Interviews

There have been several requests lately for a post on interviewing at or visiting grad schools as a prospective student, along the lines of my recent series of posts on faculty interviews.

These interviews/visits may vary from field to field, so I hope that readers will contribute additional information, specifying if possible their academic discipline.

My philosophy can be summed up quite simply. During my interaction with visiting students, I try to give a clear picture of the research opportunities and dynamics so that, if admitted, they have information to use when making a decision. Those who express an interest in my research field also meet my grad students.

When I meet with grad candidates, I don't grill them with aggressive questions. I want to see some degree of focus, but the student doesn't have to know exactly what they want to do for their thesis research. I want to be able to have a conversation about the research possibilities in my research group/department/university, and it's nice if the student asks a question now and then so the conversation isn't a monologue.

Many (all?) of the visiting students have or will end up with multiple appealing offers, as they should. For these students, the visit is a mutual checking-out of/by applicant and department.

I think that I have quite flexible parameters when it comes to evaluating a visiting grad student -- i.e., in terms of their personality and level of sophistication -- but I do have some limits. For example, I am not perturbed by shyness, although I am not as accepting of someone who considers "What are your interests?" to be an aggressive question. I am not disappointed by an inability to ask brilliant questions, but I do want to see some evidence of an interest in research. I am happy to talk about something other than science and find out about the outside interests of a student, but I think it unwise for a student to skip out on part of the organized group activities to check out the rec center (for example); I recommend finding another time to gaze at the elliptical machines and trail along on the boring lab or campus tour as scheduled.

Just as with interviews for a faculty position, I advise grad applicants to BE REAL. Give clear and sincere answers to any questions you are asked, ask any questions you want to ask, and take a careful look around and see if you are visiting a place you would really want to be.


There was also a request for information on timing of interviews, offers etc. This is going to vary a lot with institution/discipline. Anyone care to comment? I can say that it's likely that, at my institution, the process is going to be more protracted than usual as we deal with economic uncertainties.


Anonymous said...

In my field it is common for students to be accepted BEFORE they come on campus to do the "interview". The students are in fact interviewing the faculty/university/other grad students.

I have always thought this was bad practice. I know it is cheaper to make a REALLY short list of candidates from the applications and then do phone/email interviews before accepting them, but if you are going to invest 5-6 years in a student, interview them in person before accepting them into the program.

Finally, FSP, you speak so much about reading a lot of applications. I find as a prof that runs a medium size lab at a R! university, I don't even glance at any application unless the student has 1)contacted me by email to set up a phone call (also included should be transcripts attached) and 2)called me and peaked my interest in them.

What do you all think?

MGS said...

I and my friends in other grad departments (in the sciences) have found out that by the time we were picked to be interviewed the departments already thought we looked nicely qualified on paper, and the interviews were a test of fit and personality. People who seemed to understand what graduate school meant and who were not annoying were all given offers.

My advice to prospectives would be to use your best interview behavior and don't let interview nervousness make you more excitable/loud/interactive than you normally are. You might think that being engaged and asking a lot of questions is a good thing, but I've seen it backfire.

Also, don't talk too much about extracurriculars during group activities, even if another interviewee shares the same interest. You can talk about that stuff back at the hotel.

Kevin said...

Interviewing is *really* field dependent. In the engineering schools where I taught for many years, there was no interviewing of grad students. We admitted students based on their paper record, then had "yield" events to encourage them to come.

My department recently switched to doing interviews (in the style of biology departments). This resulted in more students coming to visit campus, but we don't know yet if it will result in our getting more or better students accepting our offers. It has resulted in much earlier contacts with the applicants (probably a good thing), but much more stress on the faculty to get all the files read in a week between the application deadline and when the interview invitations had to go out. One student who had applied to the wrong department by mistake did not get invited until 4 days before the interviews (amazingly, everyone we invited to interview came--only two had conflicts and they both came a week earlier).

For our interviews, we started with a 10-minute/faculty member run through of the research programs in our department (we're a tiny department with a huge diversity of projects, so this was important to do). After that we had students sign up for 4 20-minute interviews with faculty. (The faculty had about 10 interviews each.) Lab tours of the various labs were run during the interview times, so that applicants with no interview in a particular schedule could either hang out or take a tour of a particular lab. We had more tour slots than applicants, so these were mostly one-on-one tours.
We ended the day with a wine tasting (a roughly monthly event in our department).

Anonymous said...

We are beginning our grad student interviews tomorrow! In our program, we interview students before formally accepting them (unlike other programs that accept the students and then invite them for a visit). Many of our faculty are very interested in the students' prior research experience, so we expect them to be able to explain that coherently. We also like to see students who are engaged in science - they don't have to ask brilliant questions or know all the answers, but they should be interested. Finally, we worry if students don't seem to have any idea what the life of a graduate student is like. Graduate school can be pretty intense and if a student has no idea what they're getting in to, it can be a problem. Other than that, we are just trying to get to know the students and help them get to know us so that we can all determine whether our program is a good fit for them.

Anonymous said...

I suspect the difference in timing of the interview depends on the quality of the program and the applicant pool it is able to draw. My department is not able to pull in nearly the number or quality of applicants as any of us would like, even though we are a R1 school (or R!, ha ha) with decent funding. It has been a big problem for junior faculty who are still expected to have students for all the usual reasons. We now have a grad recruitment weekend, after the letters of acceptance go out, to try to woo the halfway decent students into coming.

And, from this perspective, I read your posts on GRE scores, etc., with a bleak eye. Many of us don't have the luxury to hold out for a student with good language skills and a basic grasp of algebra. We take what we can get.

Anonymous said...

Many biomedical sciences departments interview students jointly with other departments on campus. Because there are so many labs involved, there are literally hundreds of students interviewing every week for more than a month in the spring! I think in a lot of ways this is more efficient than each department doing their own interviewing, but there are a few problems.

First, it puts a huge strain on faculty and graduate students who are in charge of interviewing and entertaining students. It's impossible for anybody to maintain the same enthusiasm for recruiting students after the 4th week in a row.

Second, students who are interested in working with particular faculty will not get much time to spend with that faculty member and/or their lab (only a single, 30-45 minute interview!). Instead they are shuffled to a lot of miscellaneous activities of marginal relevance to the research they want to do, sometimes a mile or more across campus. This is great for students who are more interested in seeing the breadth of research done, but it isn't so good for students that already have a good idea of what they want to do.

Anonymous said...

For anyone who is currently sweating out whether they "should have heard" already from their prospective schools, The Grad Cafe is a very useful tool. People submit their admission results, acceptances or rejections, by department and school so you can find out what schools are mailing already. I found out about it from an undergrad in my lab who is waiting it out right now.

Anne said...

In my field/department (chemistry, also an R1 school) nearly all students are accepted before we bring them in for "recruiting weekend" (read - interview). Since they're already admitted we mainly use this interview as a means of determining level of financial support. The small number of available fellowships and extra money will be given to the more impressive students. Nearly everybody will receive a teaching assistantship. Students that were either offensive (it's happened), obviously inept in person, or particularly undesirable for whatever reason aren't offered any financial support, and that's usually enough to keep them from coming.

Anonymous said...

One year I literally chose a student at random (I put all the names of people applying to work with me in a hat). This student did really well and I saved so much time not looking over 10's of applicants files.

I am a statistics prof and over years of research I discovered that the success of a student is independent of their portfolio. A random choice (to someone smart enough to get to the level of applying to work with me at my university) is just as good as pouring over every detail in someones application and choosing the "best" student.

Kevin said...

"Since they're already admitted we mainly use this interview as a means of determining level of financial support."

Interesting. We are not allowed to admit any students until we have made all funding and admissions decisions---that is, we get one atomic transaction, no wait lists, no admit-now-fund-later.

Anonymous said...

One extra piece of advice I might offer to interviewing graduate students is to remember that you are always being interviewed. Don't think that because you are "just" talking to graduate students that it's okay to say things that you wouldn't say to the professors. When I was a graduate student, we had one prospective tell us that they really didn't want to work our department, but that it was easier to get into and then they were planning on doing research with someone more prestigious across campus. We, as graduate students, don't want our department to waste time and money on someone who doesn't want to be there. So we passed the comments along to our advisors.

You are always being interviewed. In many departments, the current graduate students do have a say in the decisions and if they think you would be a difficult person to work with, they will do their best to make sure you do not get the good fellowships.

Anonymous said...

I interviewed for grad school this time last year. I was freshly out of Post-traumatic stress disorder at the time, barely scraped through the first semester of my final year, struggled extremely hard to re-learn everything that was lost to me after that ordeal (didn't really take any time out of uni either) was heavily ill with some kind of chest infection, a mild bug but emotional stress made it difficult to get rid of...then ended up with getting accepted onto my current interdisciplinary post-grad in the UK. It beggars belief what they saw in me as my records were pathetic but I thank them for it. Sometimes it's the opportunities that interviewers give that makes the best candidates. I intend on making sure that I at least won't be the worst an advisor ever had in return.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

When I interview grad school candidates, the main thing I am interested in is having the applicant explain their undergraduate research experiences. I am impressed by candidates who are able to clearly articulate the broad goals of their research, and how their particular project fits into those broad goals. If the candidate has had no undergraduate research experience, then I ask them to explain to me how they determined that they are interested in grad school and what they expect to get out of it.

Once we get past those topics, I spend a little time telling the candidate about the various kinds of research that go in my lab, and see if they can carry on a decent conversation about it.

Anonymous said...

I found the "interview" process to be a two-way street, and quite informal. I contacted potential advisors directly, and if they were receptive, we met face-to-face to discuss possible projects, funding, etc. The interview, from my end, was a screening exercise for ME to figure out who I wanted to work with (although I'm sure my future advisor was equally sizing me up and deciding if I was worth the investment. Once he agreed to accept me as a student, I submitted my application to the university.

Minority.Scientist said...

When I "interviewed" for my graduate biomedical sciences research program, the process was casual, yet structured. I used the interviews as an opportunity to figure out if the university would be willing to take on a student who is a single parent of then a 2-year old and would be relocating 3K miles away from any family and thus a support system to help with my toddler. I found out from these interviews that the school would be supportive as long as I pulled my weight in the program as a student, which I did.

At a later date, I was informed that if you are invited to interview, the school already thinks you are worthy to attend and that the school just wants to see if the candidate would "mesh" with the rest of the community at my institution.

Now I volunteer to help out with recruitment weekend at my school and get to interact with candidates after which the administrators ask about the personality of the candidates and if there are any obvious warning signs that they should be aware of... So, do not act a fool just because you are with current students at the interviewing institution... it may get back to the powers that be. Bottom line: the school is trying to see if you are a good fit for its environment and you should use the interview to determine if the school is a good fit for yourself also. :)

John Vidale said...

Our field has one program (that I know of) that has applicant visits before the decision of who to accept - I think about 2/3rds of the invitees are accepted. The rest of us accept students then invite them to visit.

This is simply a function of which program is rich enough to invite a number of extra people and willing to pretend that whomever they accept will come.

Aside from doing some background research to investigate the place being visited, the applicants do not need to prepare or act different than usual. In fact, attempts to look more perky, smart, or focused usually are transparent and backfire.

Bagelsan said...

Along the lines of "don't skip the tour to see the rec center" I would also advise people to not skip the tour because they went out with a few older students and got so insanely black-out wasted the previous night that they couldn't move until 3pm the next day. I would also advise that, if you are under 21, you don't take that opportunity to try out your fake ID and then tell the grad students escorting you all about it.

You wouldn't think it would have to be said...

(Yes, that is a true story.)

Unknown said...

I just recently came across your blog and am so amazed at the information here. I am a chemistry undergrad in my last year of college and am currently researching grad schools. How do faculty members judge "unique" applicants? Along with being a female, my appearance is usually hated or embraced by most of my professors. I am tattooed all over, have weird hair and am considered a free spirit. My nicknames are Abby (NCIS) or Kat-Von-Chemist. The professors who get to know me, love me... but I can't ever win over the ones who just can't stand the sight of me. I'm not personally offended but I love my style and won't change. Any helpful information before I apply to grad school?

Female Science Professor said...

As long as there are some professors who appreciate you for your academic skills, don't worry about the others. My most pierced, tattooed and strange-haired student went on to do very well at an excellent graduate school; this student's academic record was the only thing that mattered in grad admissions and subsequent academic success. I don't think you have to do anything different from anyone else applying to grad school just because some people think you have an unusual style.

Anonymous said...

I am a Master's-level scientist at a top science lab, currently in the process of re-applying to graduate school in order to complete a Ph.D. in a physical science. I applied to several top programs this year, and was rejected from all of them, quite to my surprise, especially given the very positive feedback I received from several of the most prestigious schools (e.g., "We are impressed by your qualifications, however we are not able to offer you admission this year due to a very small class size..."). I've mulled over this a lot and discussed it with others, such as those who wrote my recommendation letters, and the only thing we can think of as the limiting factor is that there was a break in my graduate education: I earned my Master's during the first two years of the Ph.D. program to which I was admitted straight out of undergrad, but withdrew before completing the Ph.D. due to both professional and personal reasons. I am applying to one last university this fall, and this time will be meeting with a potential adviser face-to-face. I am very interested to hear your perspective on how I should handle this delicate topic when it comes up in the interview, and also if you think this is reason enough to reject an applicant when faced with the tough decision of choosing just a few applicants amongst many. It is a bit of a sore spot for me and I'm concerned about this coming through in the wrong way as a result. Am I obligated to go into the gory details of the departure? Much of it is personal so I feel naturally guarded about it, but I don't want to appear as if I am withholding information, either.